When “Stranger Things” debuted last year, it felt like a concentrated, binge-watchable dose of 1980s film splendor. That’s one reason the Netflix series became such a phenomenon — all those nostalgic nods to Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Stephen King.
But it wasn’t all homage. In fact, the creators, the Duffer Brothers, cleverly subverted some of the most typical tropes from movies of that era, which kept audiences guessing. Ahead of the show’s Season 2 launch Friday, we look back at five of the 1980s movie rules “Stranger Things” tossed out the window.
The absent-minded absentee parents
Both in real life and onscreen, the 1980s were the era of the latchkey kids — little troublemakers who took full advantage of their working parents’ divided attentions. Think about the harried Mrs. Walsh trusting the weaselly Mouth to translate with her new helper Rosalita in “The Goonies” or Ferris Bueller’s clueless parents, whose work schedules (and starry-eyed adoration) blind them to their son’s “sick” day adventures.
In “Stranger Things,” however, Mom is the only one really paying attention. Will’s mother, Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, is like a more scatterbrained Sarah Connor. She has an ax and she’s not afraid to use it — well, okay, maybe a little afraid. In the end, she’s the one to save the day, rescuing her son from certain death with the help of another grieving parent, Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour).
The virgin survivor
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie: For instance, number one, you can never have sex.” So says Jamie Kennedy’s movie-obsessed character in “Scream.” He’s right: Sex is deadly in “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” In “Halloween,” Jamie Lee Curtis’s goody-goody Laurie earns the “final girl” title.
But “Stranger Things” (like “Scream,” incidentally) flouts the rules in the most in-your-face way. The start of the third episode cross-cuts between Barb’s desperate fight for survival against the monster in the Upside Down and Nancy’s first time (set to Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” naturally). The old rules tell us that the buttoned-up Barb (Shannon Purser) will survive and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is doomed. But that’s not how things turn out. Pour one out for the consummate third wheel.
The girl with a one-track mind
A studious dork harbors a secret crush and yearns for a place in the popular crew. That could describe any number of ’80s teen movies, from “Sixteen Candles” to “Pretty in Pink” and “Say Anything.” At first, that’s Nancy’s story, too. Steve (Joe Keery) is her very own Jake Ryan, and he’s finally noticed her. But she quickly realizes there are more important things than making out with a hottie and hanging with the cool kids — like saving your best friend from a faceless beast. If that means ditching your new boyfriend to spend time with a slightly stalkerish social pariah, who happens to be the brother of another captive, so be it.
The snobby jerk of a boyfriend
If John Hughes taught us anything, it’s that the sweet social outcast deserves to be with their much more popular beloved (even if they’d obviously be happier with Duckie, but whatever). Said love interest is always already taken, of course, which means step one is unveiling the current partner’s many flaws. “The Goonies” really perfected the script with Troy — his name alone conveyed his preppy jock awfulness. But you see similarly cartoonish boyfriends in “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Weird Science.”
Steve seems like one of those guys, and if we were playing by 1980s Movie Rules, Nancy would ditch him for Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), the sensitive guy who’s been pining for her. But she doesn’t — and that’s actually okay because Steve isn’t the typical one-note bad-boy. He ends up proving himself, admitting he made mistakes and ditching his rude in-crowd friends. He even wears a supremely goofy Christmas sweater, reminding us that, deep down, we’re all just dorks anyway.
The plot-driving alien
The purpose of a mysterious otherworldly creature is usually to send some human character on a journey, such as Elliott in “E.T.” or Billy in “Gremlins.” Rarely do these alien beings have much of an interior life. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) appears at first to be nothing more than a tool, a way for Will’s friends to find out what happened to their missing buddy. She also uses her special powers to help their search, plus humiliate a bully or two along the way.
But as the story goes on, Eleven has her own arc and her own dark backstory, which is more compelling and tragic than that of any other character. Just as she refuses to be used as a machine in Hawkins Lab, she also forces us to see her as more than simply a telekinetic plot driver.